Sunday, August 13, 2017

A Letter to Help with this Hate

Earlier this year, I performed in a devised theatre piece, Self-Evident, directed and curated by Melissa McNamara, and created in response to the 2016 presidential election.

As part of that piece, I performed a letter I wrote to my 4-year-old daughter, Lena. In it, I tried to explain to her what's going on in the world post-election. I looked at it again today, sure that my words would be far too simple and easy to describe what happened in Charlottesville, what's happening everywhere. But I still believe what I wrote a few months back, I still think that it's our collective aversion to fear that fuels the anger and hate. I look into the vengeful, self-righteous white faces of all those tiki-torch toting men, and I see the little boys they used to be. Little boys who were taught that it wasn't ok to be afraid. Little kids who had to swallow their fear and put in its place pride, and anger, and rage.

So I'm offering this simple letter, written to my 4-year-old, as a way to think about how to talk to our children, and as a way to think about our own fear today. It's not THE answer, but it's an answer. It's a framework, a lens, a little piece of something to help us get started.

Dear Lena,

I love you. I know that ever since Jonah was born, you've had to share that love. But I think you know that I love you. I hope you always know that. I hope you always feel it. Sometimes I think my love will be enough for you to live in this world, but I'm afraid it might not be.

Do you feel afraid sometimes? I wish I could tell you that someday that'll go away, but the truth is, everyone feels afraid sometimes. Not just little kids like you. Big kids feel afraid too. And grown ups, even me.

When we feel afraid we have a choice about what we do. Some people, when they are afraid, they pretend they are not, and they talk with a louder voice, and they become mean, and they become angry.

You asked me why I don't like our new president. Let me explain it this way. I don't like our new president because he's one of these people who, when he's afraid, pretends he's not, and then he uses a louder voice, and he becomes mean, and he becomes angry. And when a person is angry, it's hard to listen, and when a person doesn't listen, it's hard to learn and it's hard to understand why he's afraid. When we don't understand why we're afraid, we're stuck feeling afraid. When we're afraid, it's hard to be kind.

And I believe that the only way all people can really live in this world together, is for us to be kind to one another.

So there's another choice we can make when we're afraid. It's what I try to do when I'm feeling afraid. I reach out for those people who love me, like Dada, or Aunt Erin, or Aunt Sarah, and I tell them, I'm afraid right now. And then we talk about it, and I do my best to listen, and understand. And the more I understand about why I'm afraid, the less afraid I feel. And when I feel less afraid, it's easier for me to be kind. I really wish that everyone would make this second choice.

Lena, when I first told you that I didn't like our new president, do you remember what you said to me? You said, maybe he just needs more time, mama. If he is new, maybe he just needs some time to work on being nicer.

I hope you're right, honey. I hope you're right. Your hope, that he can be better, your hope that people can be better, it makes me think that we're going to be okay.

And you know what? I think I change my mind about what I said before, I think that our love... Our love IS enough for us to live in this world.

I love you so much.

Always always,
Your Mama

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Dirty Drawers: Musing on Clutter, Tampons, and My Son's Awesome Mind

I am his mother. That is my preface. I am prone to thinking the world of him, to being amazed by his brain, those empty pockets quickly filling and swelling with new ideas and information, bulging with delightful discoveries, emptying out, sorting and pouring back in.
I do not apologize for my amazement, and I encourage other parents to stop apologizing as well. The fear of raising a spoiled child weighs heavily on our shoulders, passed on to us from previous generations. Can we rethink the means of spoiling? Did a child ever truly suffer because his parents were too proud, too supportive, too amazed? It’s possible. But it’s a risk I’d like to take.
My son is two years old and he is special. I encourage every parent to see her children this way. I want to build us up against the eye-rolls, the judgments of others. In our efforts to avoid over-parenting, hovering, helicoptering, micro-managing, let’s not miss out on basking in the brilliance of our children’s brains.
My son is two years old and every morning, he opens the drawers in my bathroom, pulls them out repeatedly - open close open close - making the contents shift forwards and backwards, crashing against the inside of the drawer. 
If my dad were in the room with us, he’d likely yelp out, Be careful! You will hurt your fingers! You will pinch them! You will bump your head! Often, in an effort to protect our children, we tell them that the bad thing will certainly happen. In reality we have little idea if it will. 
Would a photo of my real-life drawers be too embarrassing? Too late!
If Marie Kondo (is it obvious I didn't read her book?) were in the room with us, she might be horrified by the disarray and the sheer volume of contents in the drawers. Housed inside are all my short-lived and long-term obsessions: essential oils, handmade jewelry, make up brushes, lip glosses, nail polishes, and skincare products. Do these items “spark joy” in you? she might ask. My son pulls q-tips out of a box one by one. To him they are magic wands, invented one morning during a game he and his four-year-old big sister played. The wands lose their powers after the fluff has been pulled off, or drenched by water, or dropped into the shower drain. I need more wands, he insists as I try to close the drawer, I only have six wands! Perhaps this is what joy feels like.
If my mother were in the room with us, she might be concerned about the colorfully wrapped tampons tumbling onto the floor.
What are dees? my son asks in his one-volume (loud) voice.
Mama needs them for her vagina. That’s a hole in her vulva where blood comes out sometimes because she’s a grown up girl, my daughter explains. 
Oh I see, he says, lining up the tampons from biggest to smallest.
A brief history of my relationship with tampons: I was 12 years old when I first got my period, and at the time my mother was against using tampons. She did not use them herself. And it was not just fear of toxic shock syndrome, which is what will scare me if my daughter chooses to use them one day. She was worried about the affect they would have on my virginity. 
Half a year into my period, I lost my virginity to a tampon. I smuggled them from a friend. I used my first one because I really wanted to go to a pool party during the summer between 7th and 8th grade. I put one foot up on the side of the toilet seat and relaxed my vaginal muscles like the box instructions said I should do. It was easy, maybe because I was determined.
I didn’t want to hide them. I didn’t like how it felt to be dishonest. When I started to use them regularly, I tossed the wrappers out in the garbage right next to the toilet that our whole family shared.
Don’t leave these out in the garbage, Lyn! my mother scolded, your little brother will see. My brother was seven years old at the time, and he was asking questions.
Maybe I wanted to show my mother that I was the boss of my body? Eh, or more likely, like the messy drawers my son empties onto the floor, I’m just kind of a cluttered person. Was it intention or carelessness that led me to leave used tampons in the toilet bowl, losing patience to make sure the water flushed it all the way down before rushing off to something else? Now, I have to tell him what it is, my mother was flustered. I like to think that my actions reflected my early rumblings of railing against the idea that menstruation should be mysterious to men … or to anyone.
But enough about periods (for now). Every morning my son pulls open our drawers and out come the contents - cotton balls, toothpaste, spare change, contact lens cases, vitamin bottles, nail clippers, face cream, hair spray, dental floss, bracelets, lonely earrings, single mismatched socks. I mean to throw the empty bottles away, I mean to organize the products, I mean to. I will. 
All the heads are shaking at me. My husband’s head too, though he is relieved that my stuff stays, for the most part, on my side of the sink. Twelve years ago, after meeting with us for our pre-marital conversations, our marriage officiant had looked my husband directly in the eye and said, You cannot change Lynnette. She will not transform into a tidy person one day, this is something you’ll need to accept about her.
Lately, he might be starting to believe her. Some days, I still want to prove her wrong. But I haven’t yet. 
Honestly, most mornings when my son is going through my drawers, I heave and sigh in exasperation. The thoughts running through my mind are of genuine resolve to organize better, to purge, to buy child locks for the drawers that will keep him out for a couple years. Rubbing my eyes, I position my body in between him and my drawers. Yawning, I tell him that I don’t want him to make a mess of my things, I ask him to help me clean up.
But this morning ritual also pulls me inside his beautiful brain. And I take a mental step back to marvel as he pulls my chaotic drawers open one by one. I forgive myself for the clutter today. I think instead, that this is the child I want to raise. A child who will not leave a door closed because someone has told him not to open it.
A child who will open the same drawers over and over again, noting what is familiar, finding what is new, asking question after question, curious about what has changed. Identifying, filing, categorizing, editing, revising.
A child who is not satisfied with just one answer, who will continue digging, unearthing, wanting to know what is inside, wanting to look behind, to discover how it opens, how it closes, unafraid of getting hurt, knowing he might get hurt, getting hurt.

I want to raise a person who will get hurt and still choose to come back again tomorrow to uncover something new.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Curiosity Above Incredulity

"Why did you do that?" I ask my daughter, through a clenched jaw. One minute ago my son erupted in a sea of tears and I approached my children, as calmly as possible.They'd been playing together quietly until now and so I ask the pair of them, "what happened?" adding a lilt to my voice that I hope sounds direct but nonchalant.

"I got mad, and I bit him," my daughter says.

I examine my two-year-old son, on whose round cheek emerges an equally round circle of bright red teeth marks. It will continue to darken and raise for the next hour, the mark will linger for days. One look at the tooth circle and my eyes dart toward my daughter. Still trying to be calm, I ask, "Why did you do that?" The words ooze out from between my lips, "why did you bite him?"

She looks at me, and at four years old, she can sense the difference between curiosity and incredulity. She knows what she has done is wrong, she knew before she did it. But past that, she also knows that I think it was so wrong that I can't even begin to understand her. She is ashamed, but she's old enough to mask her shame in defense. "I don't know," she nearly sings with a shrug.

"Think about it for a moment," I hiss, because I am trying to help her process her feelings, to gain an understanding of her perspective, to bridge a gap. My words attempt patience and curiosity, but the hissing in my tone suggests that there is nothing she could possibly be feeling that could warrant a bite on her brother's cheek. The sub-text, reads clearly, what is wrong with you? My incredulity builds a wall between us. We are separated, now going through our own personal struggles alone.

Incredulity is not curiosity. Incredulity puts up walls. Curiosity can tear them down. But curiosity, true curiosity, is really hard.

In the days since November 8, or, let me be more honest, ever since our current president first received the Republican nomination, I have been wallowing through life, feeling incredulous.

Incredulity feels good when paired with a shout and a fist in the air. Incredulity feels good when you're surrounded by like-minded people, who are also shouting, chanting, and punching their fists in the air. My months of incredulity have been accompanied by anger, by rage, by sharp impatience. Incredulity doesn't just feel good, we need it, it forces us to sound the battle cry.

But in the moment when two people look each other in the eye and aim to connect, incredulity is a slap in the face. I've been replaying the words from a conversation I had with my father after I'd learned he voted for Donald Trump. My intention was to understand him, to know his key issues, to empathize. I have transcribed the conversation from memory, written it down, typed it on a screen. I have recounted the dialogue over and over again. The transcript is blameless, pristine; there is no malice in my chosen words.

"I'd like to understand why you chose to vote for Donald Trump. Will you tell me why?" I'd asked, calmly, with a deferential tone. So why did the conversation that followed, even after two attempts on two different days, fail? 

In the days and weeks and months that followed, I found myself moping around in incredulous victim-land, how could he? Why does he hate me, why is he so cruel to me? Why did he attack me? Why did he attack my parenting, my choice of faith? Why doesn't he want to connect with me?

This week as I've trudged through daily life during a dreary, albeit unseasonably warm period on the south side of Chicago, I felt overwhelmed by it, my incredulity. I felt it toward my father, toward our new president, toward all the women denouncing the women's march, toward the anonymous commenters on the internet. I felt it toward the aggression my kids display toward one another.

What is wrong with all of you? I want to scream. 

But in the midst of the overwhelming incredulity, I had an epiphany about that conversation with my dad. Despite all my best intentions, my calm tone, and the genuine desire to understand my dad, my questions to him smelled of the incredulity I'd been steeping in for months. My best acting couldn't cover it up. And like my daughter, my father felt a wall go up, but unlike my daughter, he is not just four, and so his experience in 67 years of "being a man" thrust him into a fight with me.

I also realize I know exactly what it's like to be on the other side. It's decades of my parents' incredulity that keeps them from seeing me. My father does not mask his, "I don't understand why you left the faith," he hurls accusingly at me during our conversation. For 20 years I have been telling him why. I have been sharing my entire journey of traveling away and eventually detaching from evangelical Christianity. I've provided no shortage of explanation, but my parents don't understand me. This is not because they don't love me, or don't want to understand me, but because they are not truly curious to hear my answer. They can't imagine, out of their fear, that grew out of their protectiveness, that grew out of their genuine love for me, a possible answer that could warrant my decision.

Curiosity above incredulity. Incredulity disguises itself as a question, but it has no desire for an answer. Curiosity wants to know. Curiosity heals, curiosity sees. 

"Honey, why did you bite your brother?" I'd been so focused on sounding calm, but I hadn't been truly curious. I ask again with true curiosity, and then, as the wall tumbles down, I already know the answer. Because how many faces have I wanted to bite? How many faces have I chewed through in my mind? I know what anger, frustration, and helplessness lead me to envision.

"Why did you bite him, honey?"

"I was just so frustrated, mama. He wouldn't listen to me," and I understand.

My father does not fit the Trump-supporter profile that Trump opponents have created. He's an immigrant and, with a double PhD, he is more educated than all of his children. He's an engineer, someone who used science for a living, who worked for years in Ford Motor Company's science lab to reduce vehicle emissions. He doesn't need more education to understand me. Our incredulity blinds us to one other. No matter how calm my delivery, he'd have sensed the incredulity, because its not just mine here, he'd have sensed the incredulity his media presents, of a swarm of angry people who already believe that there is nothing he could possibly say that would warrant his views.

10 actions, 100 days. After participating in this past weekend's Women's March on Chicago, I am inspired. I'm on board. I'm grateful for the incredulity that brought me here. Let's get to work, write postcards, call our representatives, sign petitions, hold up signs, rally, publish blog posts, make truth-telling art, fight, forward emails, share Facebook posts, hang Black Lives Matter posters in our windows, write our senators, submit op-eds. But all this work will do nothing to help me connect when I'm sitting across the table from my dad once again. It will not help anyone connect with anyone on the other side of the wall. Not without curiosity.

Curiosity above incredulity. Curiosity helped me understand my daughter in a moment of conflict. Incredulity has kept me and my dad from understanding one another for years. 

Curiosity above incredulity. I propose practicing this, starting now. Let's thank incredulity for its vital role, and then practice being curious.

Don't mistake my curiosity for weakness, a white flag, or an apology. I'm ready to get to work. I'm thinking big. My intention is to heal the world, starting by mending our broken relationships. And so with deep curiosity, I'll start by asking, why did my dad vote for Donald Trump? What will you be curious about?